A loss would have been far less devastating than what the Baltimore Ravens actually experienced Sunday.
Justin Tucker may have booted the game-winning field goal as time expired at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens received a bigger kick in the gut just before the 16-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams ended.
Quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a serious knee injury.
Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the news once the game ended, per the Baltimore Times' Turron Davenport:
Due to the severity and timing of the injury, Flacco's immediate future with the organization is now in question.
When will he be ready for next season? What will the Baltimore Ravens do to fill the void until he returns? How much can be expected of Flacco upon his eventual return?
First, the ailment itself needs to be addressed. The 30-year-old signal-caller was injured during the final drive when a lineman rolled up the back of his leg, per Davenport.
"He finished the whole series with two torn completely torn ligaments," Harbaugh said after the game, per NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano.
The quarterback is expected to undergo an MRI and surgery as soon as swelling goes down in his knee.
A year ago, the Arizona Cardinals' Carson Palmer suffered a similar setback, and he'll likely serve as the best-case scenario for Flacco. Palmer was ready for the start of this year's regular season, and he's provided an MVP-caliber performance upon his return.
There are, however, a couple of key differences in these two situations.
First, Flacco's injury came a week later in the season. Time is precious in these types of situations, and no one is sure when the Ravens' gunslinger will get his knee repaired. Palmer, for example, waited nine days before he was able to go under the knife.
Flacco's injury is more severe as well. Palmer didn't suffer a torn MCL. But Dr. David J. Chao believes the possibility remains that Flacco can be ready by Week 1 of the 2016 season:
Everything depends on the severity of his MCL injury.
In the short term, the Ravens must now decide what they can do without Flacco and running back Justin Forsett, who suffered a gruesome forearm fracture earlier in the same contest, as reported by NFL.com. These two major blows came after the team already lost Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles) and Steve Smith (torn Achilles) to injured reserve.
Next week vs. the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore will rely on players such as Matt Schaub, Javorius "Buck" Allen, Za'Darius Smith and Chris Givens. Schaub is with his third team in two years. Allen and Smith are rookies. Givens has been with the team for less than two months.
This isn't a roster built to withstand such monumental injuries. No team is built to take on the type of setbacks the Ravens already suffered. In total, 15 different players are on the team's injured reserve.
"At this point, you kind of expect it, you know?" cornerback Jimmy Smith said, per the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "That’s just the way things are going this year for us."
As a result, Sunday's victory merely placed the team one game further from the No. 1 overall pick. It didn't achieve anything of significance, as at 3-7, the Ravens' season is over for all intents and purposes.
Still, wins are important within the locker room.
"We've got to step up and rally for him, just like he's done for so many other guys," Harbaugh said, per the team's official Twitter account.
A relatively meaningless victory can't offset Flacco's loss. With the team's Super Bowl-winning quarterback out of the lineup, the Ravens' offensive flaws will only be magnified.
Wide receiver has been a sore spot all season, particularly after Smith's injury and first-round rookie Breshad Perriman never having seen the field this season. The running game, meanwhile, ranks in the bottom half in the league in total yards and yards per carry.
Quality quarterback play often overshadows other issues on the roster. Prior to the injury, Flacco completed a career-high 64.4 percent of his passes despite receiving very little help from everyone around him.
But Schaub isn't the caliber of player who can turn around a campaign. Despite his extensive starting experience, he's prone to fatal mistakes.
Thus, quarterback will be a major issue moving forward after the season. The problem isn't trying to find Flacco's replacement. Instead, the Ravens will need to obtain a capable backup who can be the team's starter at the beginning of the year in a worst-case scenario, or a young signal-caller with upside the coaching staff can develop.
First and foremost, Flacco's contract must be reworked. This isn't a matter based on the recent injury. Rather, the team can't absorb his $28.55 million cap hit in 2016. Once general manager Ozzie Newsome deals with that, Baltimore can then turn its attention toward Flacco's short-term replacement.
The first opportunity to do so will come via free agency or trade.
Even with the uncertain situations around the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, these two shouldn't be considered serious options due to the salary-cap ramifications of acquiring the former starters.
Instead, veterans Chase Daniel, Drew Stanton, Chad Henne and Ryan Fitzpatrick should be considered legitimate possibilities who could sign for backup money and hold down the fort until Flacco is ready to return. The team can also consider younger options like Scott Tolzien and Brock Osweiler, but both will likely be looking for an opportunity to start.
Obviously, the Ravens wouldn't select a quarterback with a first-round draft pick, but the position should be in the conversation as the second and third days of the draft unfold.
Cal's Jared Goff, Memphis' Paxton Lynch and Michigan State's Connor Cook are generally considered the upcoming draft's top quarterback prospects. The Ravens could look at collegians such as Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Ohio State's Cardale Jones, North Carolina State's Jacoby Brissett, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, Indiana's Nate Sudfeld or Stanford's Kevin Hogan, starting in the second round and beyond.
The best plan of action may be to sign a veteran other than Schaub and draft a quarterback in next year's class to make sure the team is prepared.
|Matt Schaub's decline (2012-2014)|
A year ago, Baltimore had a young quarterback option in place with Tyrod Taylor, now 26, but he found his way to Buffalo through free agency and became the Bills' starting quarterback. He left a giant void on the Ravens' roster.
This is an injury that reverberates from the top of the organization to the bottom. Even the most promising prognosis for Flacco's knee will put the Ravens behind other organizations with similar aspirations from this point until the quarterback returns to form.